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The Collation

The Folger as a Collection of Collections

The next time a scholar of early modern Europe tells you that they don’t look to the Folger as their research home because they don’t work on Shakespeare, you might gently suggest that there are other parts of the Folger’s collection that may be relevant to their work. Chances are, if they work on any topic involving literature, religion, history, or culture from between 1450 to 1750 in Western Europe, the Folger has material for them.

Most scholars realize that a collection of rare books as large and varied as the Folger’s must have come from a number of sources. But fewer realize the range of former libraries and collected materials that now make up holdings of the Folger Shakespeare Library. What follows offers a brief description and the name or term associated with several of the most prominent (mostly) printed book collections that make up a substantial part of the whole. As such, these named collections serve as a kind of “librarian’s short-hand” for getting a researcher up to speed on a particular topic or area of research.

Not all titles related to a given topic or subject area will be associated with a former owner, of course, since we are constantly acquiring new materials. The Folger collection-development philosophy, however, is to build its collections from areas of strength, so we actively seek out titles that relate to and complement these areas (among many others).

The Shakespeare Collection (often found abbreviated as Sh.Col.)

The core of the Folger collection is, of course, those Shakespeare-related materials mostly collected by Henry Clay and Emily Jordan Folger themselves. These include the First Folios (all purchased before 1928), originally numbered 1 to 79 (the re-evaluation of three separately bound folios have increased the count to 82), and almost 200 early quarto printings of individual plays.

But also important for the ability to tell the story of Shakespeare’s influence on literature and the stage are the multi-volume sets of Shakespeare’s works edited by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century scholars. These make up most of the linear feet of the Folger’s “Sh.Col.,” or Shakespeare Collection (pronounced “shuh-CALL”). A continuously growing part of Sh.Col. comprises modern translations of Shakespeare; in fact, we actively support this work through Folger fellowships. Another growth area in the Sh.Col. collection is the many student editions of Shakespeare. These range from Charles and Mary Lamb’s famous Tales from Shakespeare to the latest classroom examples and are ripe for scholars of education to explore.

Harmsworth Collection

In 1938, the Folger’s rare book collection more than doubled in number with the addition of some 11,000 volumes previously owned by the barrister Sir Robert Leicester Harmsworth, including over sixty titles printed by Wynken de Worde and a 1477 Canterbury Tales printed by William Caxton. But Harmsworth did not confine his rare book collecting to literature, and the collection also includes over 1,000 sermons, ranging in date from the reign of Henry VIII through the seventeenth-century, and over 400 interpretations of English law’s place in the commonwealth from Littleton to Coke and Bacon through Lilburne and Prynne. Arguments in utramque partem on a number of contemporary debates involving parliament, international trade, and church history are also very well represented. Obtaining his books widened the Folger collection’s focus to all of English civilization from the beginning of printing to 1640.

Frontispiece from Thomas Haywood’s Englands Elizabeth, from the Harmsworth collection. (STC 13313 Copy 3)

Stickelberger Collection of Reformation Tracts

England wasn’t at the intellectual or cultural center of Europe, and the revolution of print flourished earlier elsewhere. The texts of the early Reformation are represented by the Emmanuel Stickelberger collection of around 700 works from sixteenth-century Europe. Early works/editions of Martin Luther are very well represented, with some 180 titles, especially of his vernacular sermons and treatises. Many other Reformers are also present, especially Swiss and German. Scholars will also find substantial caches of Calvin, Bullinger, Bucer, Zwingli, and Erasmus. As with many collections at the Folger, the Stickelberger sales catalog and additional acquisition correspondence files are available for consultation.

Title page of a 1505 Latin Bible, from the Stickelberger Collection. (218-034f)

Title page of Pamphilius Gengenbach’s Von drien Christen, 1523. From the Stickelberger collection (218- 225q)

Smedley Collection

William Thomas Smedley sold his nearly 1,500 book library to Henry Clay Folger in 1924. Smedley’s materials provided strength to the Folgers’ collection with early manuscripts and printed books of Latin classics and early church writings. Many of these items date from the fifteenth and early sixteenth century and include many incunabula. These early books set the stage for the Reformation materials found in the Stickelberger collection. Smedley also collected a number of early continental books; many of them have Italian imprints or origins, including tracts by Boethius and Machiavelli. Print historians will also find some fine examples from early printing houses including those of Aldus Manutius and Johann Froben. English imprints are represented by a number from Richard Tottell, a charter member of the Stationers’ Company and the official printer of legal texts during the reign of Mary and Elizabeth. Tottell’s output makes Smedley’s collection an excellent companion to Harmsworth’s.

Colt Festival Books

Important to our understanding of European royalty and spectacle are the Colt collection of festival books. Few of our illustrated books are as spectacular as those which commemorate (or purport to commemorate) the great events of the noble and royal life cycle in early Europe, including births, weddings, pageants, coronations, processions, royal entries, and funerals.

Cornelius de Schryver, De seer wonderlijcke, schoone, triumphelijcke incompst, van den hooghmogenden Prince Philips, 1550. Colt Festival Book collection. (222- 765f)


Scholars of mid-seventeenth-century French politics and war will want to explore our Mazarinades collection of some 2,650 political pamphlets (approximately half of the total number produced during the civil war period known as the Fronde). While finding aids are in development, interested scholars are directed to begin their research in the annotated copies of Célestin Moreau’s bibliography.

Massey Collection of Herbals

Another visually gorgeous collection is the Mary P. Massey collection of over 300 herbals, many in Latin or polyglot, some of which are hand-colored and depict both the familiar flora of the Old World and the exciting discoveries of North and South America.

Hand-colored page from Elizabeth Blackwell’s A curious herbal, 1739, the Massey collection. (245- 218f Vol.1, plate 83)

Hand-colored page from a 1562 Czech edition of Mattioli’s herbal. From the Massey collection. (245- 324f)

Robert S. Pirie Items

If you are interested in rare book auctions, you may have heard that the Folger acquired 45 lots of books and manuscripts from the Robert S. Pirie sale of December 2015. Pirie was among the foremost bibliophiles and collectors when he passed away in 2015. Details of the items we acquired were shared on this blog, which explained how the Folger strategically filled collection gaps with the help of this major auction while also building on ones like the embroidered bindings. These works of art are remarkable examples of the much larger bindings image collection which includes almost 5,000 images of boards, spines, marbled end papers, fore-edge treatments, and tooling and stamping examples. (As a further aid to researchers, items listed in Hamnet that have images included in the Luna image database are directly linked from the record.)

Embroidery that was intended to become a binding. From the Pirie collection. (Art Flat c28)

Knuttel Pamphlets

Those interested in Dutch history and politics should look to our Knuttel collection of pamphlets from the seventeenth century, named after Willem Pieter Cornelis Knuttel’s catalog of the pamphlet collation in the Royal Library of the Netherlands. These important holdings are currently being cataloged, and a finding aid is in process; in the meantime, researchers may consult the annotated copies of Knuttel’s catalog upon request.

Other collections named after their catalogers

Similar to the “Knuttel pamphlet collection,” many of our collections are associated with the names of those who first cataloged or compiled them, like the Richard Charteris annotated catalogue of music manuscripts; William Pressly’s catalog of paintings; and many others that can be located through a search for “Folger Shakespeare Library Catalogs” in our online catalog, Hamnet.

In addition to the above, good places to start your scholarly exploration are the Folgerpedia articles on Research Guides, Digital Resources, and Collection. And sending an email to will connect you with the Folger staff, who know the holdings better than any.

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